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Speed to the West: A nostalgic journey at Dorset County Museum

PUBLISHED: 11:23 03 January 2017

'Speed to the West', GWR poster, Charles Mayo, 1939. This is one of the most familiar travel posters ever produced for the GWR. It shows a King Class locomotive, No. 6028 King George VI. GWR also produced a version of this for the USA market which was titled Cornish Riviera Express © NRM Pictorial Collection / Science & Society Picture Libr

'Speed to the West', GWR poster, Charles Mayo, 1939. This is one of the most familiar travel posters ever produced for the GWR. It shows a King Class locomotive, No. 6028 King George VI. GWR also produced a version of this for the USA market which was titled Cornish Riviera Express © NRM Pictorial Collection / Science & Society Picture Libr

Copyright © NRM Pictorial Collection / Science & Society Picture Libr

Claire Vera joins BBC Antiques Roadshow regular Paul Atterbury for a sentimental journey at a fascinating travel exhibition at Dorset County Museum

With his soft voice and sartorial elegance BBC Antiques Roadshow regular Paul Atterbury easily transports viewers back to a gentler age. And if you love a bit of yesteryear nostalgia then the exhibition Paul has curated at Dorset County Museum is just the thing to escape to from the mayhem of Christmas. Speed to the West is a glorious celebration of the golden age of railway travel to the South West’s holiday resorts such as Lyme Regis, Swanage, Bournemouth and Weymouth, through dazzling posters and evocative railway memorabilia.

Paul Atterbury lives in Weymouth, a place he clearly relishes. “With a great mixture of beach and harbour, history and landscape, the setting is terrific. Yes it’s a little rough around the edges, but its just such a brilliant place. I love the Nothe where you have a whole view of the town and Rodwell Road is magic, as you turn at the traffic lights at the top there’s a row of houses and the sea!”

Paul moved to Dorset gradually, spending more and more time here in the 1980s and eventually setting up a permanent home in Bridport 20 years ago. He found himself drawn to the area, especially the coast. “To wake up each morning by the sea, why would you want to be anywhere else?” His children grew up here and they’ve never left the West Country. “I can’t count myself yet as a Dorset person but I am working on it,” he smiles.

Born in London in 1945, Paul trained as a graphic designer and went on to become an historical advisor for Royal Doulton and editor of Connoisseur Magazine in the early 1980s. In 1990 he joined the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow as one of their regular experts and, as a freelance writer and broadcaster, he has written or edited more than 30 books on the subjects of ceramics, travel, railways and canals. Along the way he has also curated exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and now this latest exhibition at the Dorset County Museum, where he is also a Trustee

‘Speed to the West: A Nostalgic Journey’ takes you along the routes from London and the Midlands to the West Country, using iconic poster images from the era. There are also old signs and other railway memorabilia, as well as an evocative sound track of hissing steam trains idling in a station. As we stroll around the exhibition, visitors are keen to talk with Paul, delighted to share their newly stirred-up childhood memories.

The travel posters mostly belong to private collectors and their history tracks not only the golden age of the railways, but also illustrates the early decades of one of the most powerful tools of the modern age – advertising, as Paul explains. “At the beginning of the 20th Century colour printing starts to take off and famous brands like Bovril and Kodak emerge because they can promote themselves through images.”

But it wasn’t just household brands. Paul pauses in front of the oldest railway poster in the exhibition - an inviting image of Bournemouth with its pine trees and golden sands. “It says ‘come to Bournemouth for your holiday’ and look at the timing, the poster is from 1916 – the middle of the First World War. What it is also doing is suggesting to soldiers that Bournemouth is a beautiful and tranquil place they could visit during their leave from the horrors of the Western Front.

“There was a marketing idea that if you put a great image on a wall people will see it and then notice the company name at the bottom. With railways it’s all about imagery, projecting a wonderful image of what that place may look like. We both know that Exmouth doesn’t look like it does on that poster over there,” he waves his hand towards a rather exotic depiction of a seaside that looks more South Pacific than South Devon. “But it was about seducing people into buying that holiday. It was very careful, suggestive and effective marketing.”

In their heyday, the posters were created by greatly admired artists. “One of my favourites is a man called Norman Wilkinson,” Paul reveals. “He was a great maritime painter and very famous poster artist. He was also responsible for the introduction of dazzle camouflage – which involved printing ships in zig-zag patterns which was tremendously effective. He was a man of huge diversity and talent.”

Colour printed travel posters continued right through to the 1960s and 70s. And we stop in front of a fine example from 1960. “This wonderful abstract image of a Diana Dors look-alike with Weymouth reflected in her sunglasses says Weymouth is hot, glamorous and romantic!” says Paul. “The design has become simpler and it lacks the power of the earlier posters. Soon afterwards they begin to use photographs, but they don’t have the same effect, also by this stage people are starting to travel abroad for their holidays.”

The styles of the posters vary and some even reference contemporary art work. Paul stops in front of a 1935 poster of a quaint Cornish fishing harbour by Ronald George Lampitt. “This mosaic-type poster is Impressionism gone mad. It’s clearly influenced by the French Pointillism movement, when you stand back it comes together and it works. These posters drew the world of art into public display and train station became like an art gallery. Posters were placed all over, and at big stations they were displayed all together as suggestions, the station manager chose which ones were displayed and it was a continual process of change.”

So does Paul have a favourite poster? He lingers by the image of the Diana Dors look-alike. “It would have to be this Weymouth one - it’s so distinctive, stylish and abstract.

The appeal of the posters today is that they are rare records. Made from paper, they were designed to be constantly replaced and thrown away. So it really is a wonder any survived at all.”

Speed to West: A Nostalgic Journey runs until 7 January 2017 at Dorset County Museum, Dorchester dorsetcountymuseum.org

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